Should Atheists do Interfaith Work?

I'm late to the party--here's Chris Stedman saying yes, here's Josh Rosenau strengthening the case and Joe Hoffman saying maybe not, while others hate the whole idea (see the Stedman post for details).

The idea that atheists could be involved in interfaith work dawned on me a couple of years ago when I attended an interfaith panel on the crisis in Darfur.  [Now I remember ... I wrote about this before!]  The panel included a rabbi, a college chaplain and an imam. I was there as chair of a large Darfur initiative at the rabbi's synagogue.  I found myself looking at things through two sets of eyes.  I was proud of the rabbi.  He had visited Darfuri refugee camps himself, and our initiative was nationally supported and very effective at raising money and awareness (Nicholas Kristof mentioned it in a 2005 column).  On the other hand, it seemed to me the panel should have included someone with a non-theistic perspective.  This couldn't just be an ethicist, or foreign affairs expert, or what not--this was a panel assembled to represent diverse religious perspectives.  But why not an atheist or a secular humanist?

Some atheists really don't like the idea.  The main objection seems to be that if atheists get involved with "inter-faith" work, that will send the message that atheism is based on faith.  That, I think, is a superficial objection.  In fact, religious people could have the same worry.  Many believers believe because they think they have a sound argument to support their belief-- they don't believe "on faith."  So "faith" is already being used loosely here.  An inter-faith panel is really just a panel composed of members of different religious communities--faith, schmaith.  So the real question is: are atheists members of religious communities?

Some are, some aren't.  Just being an atheist doesn't really make you a member of such a community.  But some atheists do organize themselves into groups in a religion-like way. In fact, I spoke at such a group on a recent Sunday morning.  There was inspiring music, there were nice, warm messages, but it was all 100% godless. (And then there was my dark little talk about whether people ought to exist...!) I can easily imagine someone leading a "freethinker" initiative on Darfur, and thus having a basis for being included on that panel alongside the rabbi, the chaplain, and the imam.

What's left, then, as an objection to atheists doing interfaith work?  There's this--and for some, I think it's the main thing: being on such a panel forces people into a posture of mutual respect.  A foaming-at-the-mouth anti-Jewish imam isn't going to be invited, nor is a rabbi who despises Christianity, or a Christian who's constantly voicing contempt for non-Christians.  To get on a panel like this, a freethinker has got to reject religious belief nicely, in just the "I respect you, but..." way that Jews, Christians, and Muslims disagree with each other.  To the extent that the most visible sort of atheism today is less respectful than that, the interfaith-suitable freethinker is going to have to be different.  And overtly different too--they're going to have to reassure religious leaders that they are "like this, not like that."   That's the price of inclusion--and I think inclusion on that Darfur panel would have been desirable.


Andrew said...

I'm not keen on humanism (because I see it as a religion-substitute and I don't think religion is necessary), but Allan Hayes, the former president of the Leicester Secular Society, was appointed chaplain to the previous Lord Mayor (to much foaming at the mouth from pedants who insisted a chaplain had to be Christian), and has written approvingly of the city's Council of Faiths which does a great deal for interfaith relations.

I think interpreting the word "faith" as simply meaning "belief without a rational argument" is missing the point - I have faith that my chair will continue to support me while I type this, and that isn't based on belief in anything supernatural. The word has meanings such as "trust" and "confidence" which don't exclude evidence-based rational faith (as you point out, many religious believers would say their faith is of this sort - I heard Richard Swinburne being interviewed by Julian Baggini the other day, and he definitely believes that facts and rationality fully support his faith).

s. wallerstein said...

It's great for atheists to work together with theists on common causes, but does it have to be called an "interfaith" effort?

Atheism isn't a faith.

Couldn't they call it "different life-views" or something like that?

Sometimes in Chile they get together a bunch of people like bishops and rabbis and protestant pastors and someone from the Masons (not a conventional theist) and maybe a couple of university rectors to deal with some highsounding question and they give the group a big name (I forget exactly which name, but something like "representatives of ethical stances"), but they never call it "interfaith".

However, it's basically the same thing and it allows believers and non-believers to work together, without going so far as to suggest that atheism is a faith.

Jean Kazez said...

I made several points about the word "faith" in the post...no?

s. wallerstein said...

Yes, you did discuss the word "faith".

However, while it is true that some religions would deny that they are based on faith, as you say, religions are often referred to as "faiths".

In fact, my Webster's Dictionary gives as one definition of "faith", "something that is believed esp with strong conviction; esp, a system of religious beliefs".

So I said that "atheism is not a faith". I did not say that atheism is not based on faith.

Thus, I take an interfaith group to be not a group of people whose convictions are based on faith, but a group of people who belong to faiths, that is, to recognized religious denominations.

Jean Kazez said...

Paragraph #2 and #4.

The freethinker group is not a religion, but it is sufficiently religion-like in relevant ways that I think a representative (with Darfur expertise) belonged on this religion-oriented panel.

Once you add the freethinker to the panel, do you really have to change the name? I find that fussy. Tons of names reflect the history of a group, not its current composition. Southern Methodist University is not really Methodist. Texas Agricultural and Mechanical doesn't specialize in agriculture and mechanical stuff. The Center for Inquiry doesn't just do inquiry. The New York Ethical Society isn't exactly an ethical society.

At any rate "interfaith" is misleading even as a name for a group of Jews, Christians, etc., for the reason I gave. Everybody knows to take names with a grain of salt.

s. wallerstein said...

You convinced me that if there is a good cause, I should participate in an interfaith group, but of course, I'm the guy who when uncomfortable at social gatherings (and I'm generally uncomfortable) long ago learned to seek out a clergyman to talk about philosophical issues.
(They tend to be more thoughtful and reflexive than most.)

Some other atheists might be more difficult to convince.

Jean Kazez said...

I'm not saying interfaith stuff is for every single atheist--in fact, I entirely understand someone having an aversion to this sort of thing on aesthetic grounds. It's just all too earnest and clammy for some people. A lot of atheists don't want to be part of organized irreligion either--they would not be attracted to the freethinker group I mentioned. That's also a bit earnest and clammy. But I think it's all to the good for atheists to be represented on an interfaith panel--they have a right to be there, and can thereby do good. Religious (and quasi-religious) networks can be extremely effective for raising money and awareness--this is something I learned in spades when I was in charge of the Darfur project I mentioned in the post.